The Globe & Mail recently ran an in-depth investigative article, “Locked out of the ivory tower: how universities keep women from rising to the top,” which looks at the challenges faced by women — and especially women of colour and those with disabilities — in academic institutions as they try to rise through the ranks. The article, part of a series on the power gap between men and women, included a companion piece that analyzed salary and gender data at 15 Ontario universities from 1999 to 2019. In it, reporters Chen Wang and Robyn Doolittle persuasively argued that “[u]niversities have been promising to fix the sector’s gender problem for decades, but women are still under-represented at almost every level, particularly in decision-making roles, among full professors and senior faculty positions, and in the highest earning echelons.”
As a full professor at a Canadian university who landed a tenure-track job in 1999, I wasn’t surprised by the article’s findings. When I was hired, I did not receive credit for having completed a prestigious, year-long social sciences and humanities postdoctoral fellowship, because I did not pick up sessional teaching during that time. It would have been quite easy to come by, but I was advised to focus on writing and publishing to land a job. No explanation was given to me as to why I was denied credit, but after being granted early tenure and a promotion, and with the help of my chair, I fought to boost my pay retroactively to reflect the year I thought I had lost.
That experience prompted me to write a letter to the Globe & Mail following the publication of its article, lamenting that not much has changed. But my response felt entirely inadequate. It did not examine a complex and challenging aspect of making academic institutions more equitable, one that I have witnessed and been part of as a white female settler academic: the tendency to view the promotion of white women to positions of leadership as a triumph for universities, without examining how this often fails to address larger issues of equity, diversity, inclusion and decolonization (EDID).
While sexism remains a major problem within Canadian universities, the reality that Ms. Wang and Ms. Doolittle describe is more nuanced due to differences of class, race and sexual orientation, especially for those who are still regarded as visibly “other.” For me, it was only when I spent a semester abroad in 1991 during my undergraduate studies at McGill University that I had the opportunity to think long and hard about race relations and my own white privilege. At Duke University in North Carolina, my academic interests in Black and Indigenous writers led me to enroll in seminars where I was the only white person in the room, a radical shift from my experiences in Canadian classrooms dominated by white students and white (usually) male professors.
What I learned through that experience, and through my subsequent work with living Indigenous female authors, is the need to recognize the intersectional nature of oppression. The reality, I realized, is that although I continue to occupy space and assert power as a white woman, I may yet feel relatively powerless.
So how can postsecondary institutions, which continue to struggle to move women into the senior ranks of academia, do better at fundamentally changing the structures that continue to make them colonial entities, governed by white folks? And is promoting white women to the senior administrative ranks the best answer?
One way to begin might be to look at how BIPOC faculty are paid and treated when they first enter academia. As a former department chair and past president of the Association of Canadian College and University Chairs of English, I have seen BIPOC faculty too often hired before completing their PhD, and then paid at the level of instructor rather than assistant professor, teaching and researching while finishing their dissertation in record time. Despite the best intentions of hiring committees, chairs, deans, vice-presidents and presidents, these same hires are loaded down with service work because of the need to meet EDID goals that pay no attention to their impact on the very populations they are supposed to help.
What impact do these decisions have on the mental health, well-being, and financial future of these hires? How might BIPOC faculty be better protected so that they can finish their studies without distraction and then carry out the research that they want to pursue, rather than being mandated to lead EDID work or treated as resident experts on race relations? If we are truly committed to changing white privilege in the ivory tower, what mechanisms need to be in place for BIPOC hires to succeed and to become mentors? The tendency to see equity simply as a failure to include white women is far too narrow-minded to bring real diversity to the university sector. White women like myself need to recognize the importance of asking and listening to the thoughts and opinions of our BIPOC colleagues and students, without relying on their labour to re-envision universities as truly inclusive and decolonized, rather than merely appearing to be so.
Jennifer Andrews is a professor of English at the University of New Brunswick.